In late May, protestors rioted against the tens of thousands of African migrant workers and asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv. They attacked passersby, smashed cars and vandalized shops.
Within two weeks, the government began a brutal campaign to deport refugees from South Sudan. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, orchestrating the expulsion, was widely quoted to have declared that Israel “belongs to the white man.” Soon, he promised, he will expel all the Africans in order to ensure “the Jewish character of the Jewish state.”
With tiresome predictability, liberal pundits have taken up the usual refrain in response to such rhetoric, arguing that we, the people who experienced the Holocaust, should behave more morally, should remember what it means to be a refugee, should know where racism leads. The Internet is humming with references to pogroms, Kristallnacht and the Nuremberg race laws.
But such Holocaust references—proffered mostly by middle-class self-described liberals who have never met a migrant worker—reveal both our conceit and our self-hatred. And they paralyze debate, making it impossible for liberal Israelis to solve problems by normal political means. It’s as if the Jewish people’s past suffering places a special moral burden on our collective and individual shoulders—as if victimization elevates a people to a special level of humanity. The implication is that if we, the entire Jewish people, do not manage to be better than others, then somehow we are worse.
In their absurdity, our glib and arrogant comparisons to ultimate evil—referred to by Internet pioneer Mike Godwin as Reductio ad Hitlerum—leave us with no realistic imperatives to which we can hold ourselves or our politicians accountable.
But there are realistic imperatives, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his inflated coalition know them. They must know that traumatized peoples rarely sublimate their victimization into collective responsibility, and that only social policies predicated on compassionate social welfare, decency, interdependence and a belief in the value of both the individual and the community can help us become a more caring society.
Instead, Netanyahu and his coalition have played to society’s basest emotions. They have created a bad situation and then made it worse.
An estimated 60,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Africa live in Israel today, according to aid organizations. Some 85 percent of them are from Eritrea and Sudan. Because of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees—of which Israel was a principal drafter—the Eritreans cannot be legally deported. Because Israel has no relations with Sudan, it is technically impossible to deport the Sudanese. So these people will be living here for a long time.
The problem is not unique to Israel. Dealing with illegal immigration and providing for asylum seekers and refugees is a challenge throughout Europe, North America and beyond. But Israel’s government has not formulated any immigration plan for the thousands of Africans streaming across the Israeli border. The migrants who flood into south Tel Aviv, some of them truly refugees, others seeking a better economic life, are dependent solely on the good will of Israeli volunteer organizations.
South Tel Aviv has long been the gleaming metropolis’s backwater. Neglected for generations by the municipality, the government and the left, its residents, mostly lower-class Mizrahim, had hoped that last summer’s social demonstrations would improve their situation. Instead, the municipality forcibly evacuated their protest tents, and the government pulled back on almost all of its promises to make life easier. Still, the residents have maintained a defiant sense of local patriotism and a stubborn sense of community.
But now they are losing even that. According to the municipality, immigrants from Africa now make up about 25 percent of the already overcrowded, crime-infested neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Homeless, with no means of support or communal organization, the migrants, most of them men between the ages of 20 and 40, hang out on the streets and sleep in dirty public parks. At first the veteran Mizrahi community attempted to integrate the Africans. But as their numbers grew, this became increasingly difficult.
Enlightened social planning could have prevented the explosion. Instead, Miri Regev, a Knesset member from Likud, called the Africans “a cancer.” MK Danny Danon, also Likud, said the migrants had established “an enemy state with Tel Aviv as its capital.” Netanyahu has been largely silent, offering only vague comments about “unacceptable behavior.”
For Interior Minister Yishai to refer to Israel as a “white country” is particularly troubling—and ironic given that his party, Shas, was founded in response to discrimination against the “black” Mizrahim. Is he excluding the Ethiopians, too, who are, after all, not white?
Yet none of this means Israelis are uniquely racist, or that they are betraying their history, or any of the other overheated rhetoric now heard. Israeli politicians didn’t invent the politics of divide and conquer, and the Mizrahim of south Tel Aviv will not be the first minority group to oppress the only minority group that is lower than they are on the social totem pole.
The African migrant problem can be solved humanely. Until now, Israel has refused to institute a process to review refugee applications individually, as mandated by the United Nations. With such a process, illegal migrants could be returned to their countries, while refugees would be allowed to stay and be issued work permits.
But we must also recognize that unless we address social inequality and create equitable and humane social policies, we cannot solve the problem of the migrants—or care, in the here and now, for those who are already here.
Eetta Prince-Gibson is a journalist and editor living in Jerusalem and is the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report.